“Lay, Lady, Lay”: Sex and The Pill in The Seventies

CNN The Seventies, The Seventies, 1970, The Pill, Sexual Revolution

The take-home message was clear in the 1970s: if you wanted to compete, to stay in school, pursue a career, or get a great education, you would have to meet men at the table on equal footing. Suddenly, the best way to do that was to go on “The Pill.” You could own your sex life in an honest, forthright way, and stay in school. It was the best of both worlds. It was a revelation many of today’s feminists don’t understand.

There was a pivotal moment in my growing up when the music changed. On some critical day, my friends and I went from listening to The Beatles wanting just to hold my hand to Bob Dylan singing “Lay across my big brass bed.” The Rolling Stones suddenly wanted to spend the night together, while the Beach Boys just thought “wouldn’t it be nice if we were older.” It was an era of insistent rock and roll and all I wanted was to be older. I didn’t know what any of that meant when I was 13 in Catholic school, but I sure found out fast when I was 17 in 1969 and away from my family at the University of Michigan.

To be fair, Michigan was not an unusual hotbed of sex, drugs, or rock and roll. It was just a college filled with 37,000 kids like me, away from home for the first time. We knew very little about sex, less about drugs, but everything about rock and roll. To call it a learning experience to go away to college in those years is an understatement and it would come together somewhere about the time I started college with the introduction of “The Pill.”

Oral contraception changed everything for women in the 1970s.

So many things were on the cusp of change as I entered college in those post-Hillary Clinton “white glove girl” years. I lived in a dorm where we were asked to take a vote in the beginning of the semester to see if “men” might be allowed into the dorm during visiting hours. I thought that was really bizarre at the time. Why wouldn’t you want to have your friends over? In my total naiveté, I voted in the affirmative – let’s let guys come over. Then the question was, when are visiting hours going to be? In the end, we moved beyond the more demure “men in the lobby only” days to opening the doors and even though it was just girls living there, young men could “visit” – at which point, the girl across the hall moved her boyfriend in and we all went back to what we were doing. He was great – it was like family. He looked after us. And she just kept going to school.

The girl who lived at the end of the hall was the most remarkable to me. She was insanely tall, had legs and hair like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, a wardrobe like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and a job like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. She financed her education by turning tricks. She would get calls at all hours and come back to tell us all about “going six or eight times.” She always had cash, she always looked fabulous, and yes, she was on The Pill. She became the first woman I knew who had a prescription for oral contraceptives.

That was it. In that moment, I understood that the key component to her life was a very feminine-looking compact with the tiny pills that kept her from getting pregnant which ultimately kept her working which in turn kept her in school. That was powerful stuff to a kid who barely knew what exactly this girl was doing at night. At this moment in 1970, the Supreme Court had not yet ruled that unmarried persons had any constitutional right to privacy and, by extension, contraception. Remarkable to think now that my dorm-mate really was every bit as cutting edge as I thought she was then.

There was something about The Pill in those very early years though. It had a mystique, initially it was something other people did, it was right and so very wrong at the same time. You didn’t want your mother to find out you were a “fast” girl or that you might be “easy.” And on the other hand, you certainly didn’t want an unplanned pregnancy to cut short your dream of finishing school – especially since women finished school against so many odds in those days that when I talk about it now, it might as well have been the covered wagon era.

Another of my freshman floor-mates wanted to get a graduate degree at the School of Architecture. She was great in Math, loved to draw, dreamed of being an architect, but when she came back from the interview, she wanted to pack up and go home because some moth-eaten old white guy sat her down and let her know she wasn’t getting in because, after all, that kind of professional schooling would be wasted on a woman who would just turn around and get married or pregnant and waste an opportunity that would be better filled by a young man. If he gave her a seat, he would be, in effect, turning away a man who could provide for his family.

To the younger, more judgmental feminist crowd, I ask you to spend a few minutes remembering that that was a reality for many of us not all that long ago. And those very personal events shaped the opening years of feminism.

The take-home message was clear: if you wanted to compete, to stay in school, pursue a career, or get a great education, you would have to meet men at the table on equal footing and suddenly, the best way to do that was to go on The Pill. You could own your sex life in an honest, forthright way, and stay in school. It was the best of both worlds.

But not everyone took to The Pill right away. There were problems with balancing the prescription because the early pills were such an unnecessarily high dosage, there were side effects, and it was openly condemned by Catholic Church which kept advocating for the old fashioned Rhythm Method – something my friends and I could not begin to understand, let alone make work to our advantage. Still, somehow we all came onboard and the monthly reward was finally we knew exactly when to expect our periods so, those days, we could take a couple aspirin and just lie down and take a nap. It was order where all we knew was disorder before. It was a play that suddenly we could direct instead of just act.

Looking back, I am stunned by the suddenness of the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s. We went from listening to the Beach Boys and snickering about what other girls did in cars at the drive-in movies to taking The Pill, owning our own sexuality, standing up for equal opportunity, and beyond all that, we insisted on staying in school. We were shocked that Bob Dylan could sing “Lay, Lady, Lay” and yet, we delighted in it. We found that the view on the other side of that key pivotal moment in rock and roll was clear and fresh and exhilarating. We reveled in our freedom and taking The Pill was a bold, decisive way to express it.

I confess I have no idea what sex workers did to prevent pregnancy before my dorm friend started taking the Pill. I am certain she never knew what an impact her choices made on me in 1970. But I know that an enormous layer of fear and secrecy about sex was lifted from us when The Pill was introduced and made legal, available, and even affordable. We all suddenly stopped giggling and, with the Jefferson Airplane or the Rolling Stones playing in the background, we started saying honestly, “Yeah! Let’s spend the night together.”

Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood.  She blogs on The Backpack Press and Tumbleweed Pilgrim and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one.  She is the author of “A Marshmallow on the Bus” and “Prayer Beads on the Train” and a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain.  Most of her writing is done on the bus.  www.about.me/anneborn. You can follow Anne on Wattpad, Instagram, and Twitter at @nilesite.

Image courtesy Anne Born

  • Beth Kovinsky Blacker

    I went to Michigan a decade later and can’t imagine a professor telling me don’t bother applying for a particular program because I was a woman. What a difference 10 years obviously made! Thanks for sharing your story via #mlblvd

    • anne

      That moment, that devastating moment, has stayed with me all my life. It’s incredible how far the Women’s Movement took us in such a short time. Thanks so much for reading! Go Blue!

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